Fix Nonprofit Higher Ed First

Jesus asked his followers to address the whacking huge piece of lumber in their own eyes before performing optical surgery on others. And I can’t think of a better case study of His wisdom than good old U.S. higher education, where the 5,000 nonprofits–many of them pushing what they perceive as Christian values–are engaging in high hypocrisy about for-profit education vendors.

Sure, the for-profits are just as bad as they say. They fail to graduate students and the students they graduate are often un-, under- and mis-educated. The students go into debt to pay outrageous tuition for the attention of under-qualified faculty, and then fail to find the employment for which they were putatively prepared. And from all of this under-regulated misery and failure, the shareholders are racking up massive capital accumulation.

The problem is that the for-profits did not invent any of this. All of these tactics–what I’ve called the tuition gold rush–were pioneered by the nonprofit sector.

1) We nonprofits have been teaching students with  underqualified faculty, graduate students, and even undergraduates for the past 40 years (all while braying inanely about an “oversupply” of persons with doctorates).

2) We charge outrageous tuition for degrees which will not lead to employment, while putting students to work at super-exploitative wage discounts.

3) By overcharging students and underpaying faculty,  we have been accumulating capital–not in shareholders’ pockets, but capital nonetheless, in buildings and grounds, endowments, in tech infrastructure. We also spend down a lot of the dollars that an enterprise institution captures as profit and sends along to its shareholders. Sometimes those dollars are spent on valid public non-education goods. Just as often, though, they’re blown by the million on administrator initiatives like big-time sports, social engineering, business ventures, and the pet projects of influential campus or community actors.

The reason our administrator-dominated accreditation system couldn’t hold for-profits accountable between 1990 and the present is because between 1970 and 1990 it allowed the wholesale substitution of students and M.A. holders (willing to work for status and peanuts) for a largely tenurable workforce with terminal degrees as the preferred qualification.  As I’ve been saying since the early 1990s: if one or two big education states restored the 1970 percentage of tenure-stream faculty with doctorates in teaching-intensive positions, there’d be a vast, sucking undersupply of persons with doctorates in many fields.

I agree, by the way, that a Ph.D. by itself is far from an ironclad guarantee that any individual is an effective teacher, researcher, or campus citizen.  As we began to misconstrue tenure as a merit badge for research faculty the system of doctoral preparation grew increasingly flawed as a preparation for teaching-intensive faculty positions. But in fields where terminal-degree programs exist, they remain the right intervention point.  Where employers at teaching-intensive institutions hire better-prepared faculty into teaching-intensive positions, programs have quickly begun to compete with each other to prepare faculty who are excellent teachers.

While employing more persons with doctorates is desirable, the point is to put them through the rigorous seven-year peer assessment of the tenure system. One of the biggest failures of the accreditation system is that it has permitted the development of slapdash, harebrained systems of hiring and evaluation by administrators. Despite propaganda to the contrary, the toughest standards for faculty evaluation–by far–are still embodied in the arduous, long-term peer scrutiny of the tenure system.

Across the country, management-dominated hiring and evaluation of the majority of faculty and student instructors is capricious, ill-informed, and aimed at hiring the cheapest and most docile faculty, not the best. Fixing higher ed will inevitably mean either reinstating the rigors of peer assessment (the tenure system) or finding a credible substitute–which, so far, 40 years of management innovation has failed to provide.

You actually want to fix higher ed and stimulate the economy? It’s not rocket science.

1) Make tuition free at public institutions. Heck, go further and provide stipends for housing and expenses. Raise taxes on the Real Housewives class to pay for it.  Hold mainstream journalists, mass-media outlets and politicians accountable for honesty on education issues. Likewise, encourage higher-ed unions and professional associations to learn something from smart, militant schoolteacher unions in the U.S. and abroad.

2) Raise standards for the qualifications, training, and continuing professional development of all faculty.  Many great researchers need incentives to learn to teach better. Great teachers should have opportunities and incentives for earning terminal degrees and remaining current. This doesn’t mean their job descriptions should be changed: the difference between  a bad teaching-only appointment and a pedagogically appropriate teaching-intensive appointment is support for professional currency.

3) Put more people with doctorates in teaching-intensive tenure-track positions and prepare them better for teaching.  Which for most would mean less teaching in graduate school but with far more training and supervision.

4) Remove undergraduate students from work-study positions unrelated to their course of study, and hire adult workers in their place.

5) Place limits on student labor outside of the education workforce, and provide incentives for the employers of “workers who study” to reduce their workload while engaged in learning.

The panic about for-profit practices has a basis in reality, but it’s a hypocritical and propagandistic misconstruction of history to claim that “they” influenced the nonprofit sector to adopt ruthless, shallow, exploitative practices–whether it’s passing off first-year grad students as teachers or promoting what Jeff Williams has reasonably argued is student debt as a form of indentured servitude.

No, fellow hypocrites. The for-profits didn’t teach us any of these sleazy innovations. We taught them.


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